The Reading is from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (1:1-8)
Christmas is about the coming of God to all of mankind. It is about His taking human flesh and dwelling with us, in order to suffer and die for us and save us, but God became man for another reason as well. So that we might hear His teachings. By the grace of God we are given the privilege of coming into His house every week and hearing His actual words. He loves us so much that He doesn’t tell us to go off on our own and figure things out. God does not want us to be lost, or confused. He teaches us with His words, to give us His teaching for our lives. In today’s reading, given to us on this the eve of the New Year, we hear these words “Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.” If that is not a worthwhile New Year’s resolution, I am not sure what would be. Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. But what does that actually mean for us? What is this path that we need to make straight? What is the way of the Lord, and how do we prepare it?
Perhaps we should not be surprised that ultimately these words refer to the heart. Christ desires to reign and to rule over His people by ruling in their hearts. And we who deeply desire to know Him more intimately, more deeply, are given the way forward here. We have to prepare the way of the heart and straighten the paths of the heart so that God can come to us, or rather, that we might come to Him. We prepare the way of the Lord in the same way that the people prepared the way for the Lord long ago, when these words were first spoken. We repent and we confess our sins and then we receive baptism or the washing away of our sins. Of course we know that in our Orthodox Christian faith, there can only be one baptism. So how can we be baptized again?
St. Basil the great says that the second baptism is the baptism of tears. We should pray in a heartfelt manner and reflect upon all of our sins. We should acknowledge that our sins have truly and violently separated us from the God who loves us and also from our families and friends. We should acknowledge that our sins have tainted every single thing that we have done in our lives. I should understand that my sins affect more than just me. They are felt within the whole community and even cosmically. Our sins are powerful. But God is more powerful by far.
Why should we start our New Year with this resolution? Because as Christians, we have stated that we desire to know God and be His sons and daughters. This, my brothers and sisters, is the only way to make our desire a reality; through true and heartfelt and even painful repentance. Anytime someone wants to build a house, we think that the first thing that must be done is to prepare a foundation. But it’s not true. The first thing that must be done is to clear a path for the materials and workers and equipment to come to the construction site.
The Lord Jesus will provide the materials, the workers and the equipment and He will even oversee the whole job. The materials are the sacraments that bring us the grace of God, especially Holy Communion. The workers are the clergy and our fellow brothers and sisters who minister to our needs and love us. The equipment is the Church and all that is contained in her. Her prayers, her discipline, her services, her hymns. All of that is provided by the chief architect and builder, who is Christ our Lord. What is required of us is to clear a path for Him to work. We have to give Him space to do His amazing work. The work requires patience and time and it requires us to genuinely struggle to keep the path clear and straight for the Lord. If the Lord is always battling for a spot on the path, we are bound for failure. But if we uproot the sins and the unnatural and downright demonic lusts of our hearts, then He can do a marvelous work in each of us. I know that some of you, hopefully all of you, would like to be saints. It is possible only if the heart is struggling for purity. So how do we struggle in a practical sense?
Our struggle is not just to avoid certain things, and certain activies. We have to struggle to actually do some things that are very important. We have to develop a spiritual rule for our lives. It has to be something that we do every single day, without fail. If you don’t think this is possible, remember that you shower, brush your teeth and eat nearly every day. The soul is also hungry, so allow God to feed it! First, Dedicate time to God every single day, at the very least with 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening. Don’t try to convince yourself or me that you don’t have the time. Our days are already numbered by God. There are plenty of prayer books and prayer apps that can be used and if you would like a recommendation, please see me later or send me an email. The end of each day should be marked with prayers of repentance and a daily private confession of your sins. This confession should be punctuated by confession with your father confessor at least 4 times a year and my recommendation is to confess early in the fasting periods as opposed to right before the feasts in order to get the biggest benefit, because “no one puts new wine into old wine skins”.
In addition we should definitely understand that purity is holistic and it builds upon our environment and our senses. Christians have no business watching filth, no matter what name that filth goes by, be it Game of Thrones or Walking Dead or Sex and the City or Will and Grace or whatever other nonsense to which we are exposing ourselves. Guard the door to your hearts ferociously, with zeal, because our God is a jealous God and He refuses to share space in our hearts. There is only enough room to love God and love your neighbors. Sometimes, even if what we are watching and doing is not awful, it can still be obscuring the path to our hearts. Facebook is not just a drain on your time, it is a drain on society. If you want to continue to use it, do so, but understand that when it replaces things that are spiritually productive, it becomes a great sin, because your life was given to you so that you would have fellowship with God and serve Him.
That is ultimately what this gospel reading is telling us, cleanse your hearts in an uncompromising way and allow space for God and what is holy, and then you will be quite surprised by the way that God breathes new life into you and into your life, your relationships, your school and your work. May the Lord bless the crown of the New Year by His grace and love towards mankind. AMEN.